20th May 2020

Motorcycling Landmarks: Triumph and the Last Great All-rounders

You rarely see all-rounders these days. Modern motorcycles are finely honed and perfected for a single role, be it cutting edge sports machines with alloy beam frames, adventure bikes with long-travel suspension or laid back cruisers with relaxed ergonomics.

In the old days a motorcycle was expected to perform well in multiple roles: an economical commuter during the week; a commodious tourer for the holidays; even as a racer or trials machine at the weekend. By changing sprockets, handlebars and exhausts, sometimes the seat, gear ratios and tyres, or adding a fairing, the personality of the machine was easily altered. BSA and Ariel singles, and Triumph twins, were good examples of this versatility.

Perhaps inevitably then, the last true all-rounders were the Triumph 750 twins, produced as the twin carb T140 Bonneville and the single carb TR7 Tiger from 1973 to 1983. Distinguished only by their paintwork and the number of carburettors, the two variants are effectively a single model.

Even when new, the T140/TR7 offered a ‘classic’ experience, much like the final MGB sports cars. The UK specification with large fuel tank and flattish handlebars provided traditional styling while the US version with peanut tank and ‘chopper’ style handlebars captured the cruiser look.

Adding a fairing, luggage and more seat padding created the Police model used by many forces, from Merseyside to Nigeria, which was then made available to the public with a fancy paint job as the Executive tourer.

Stripped down and fitted with off-road tyres, the bikes were the mainstay of the army’s White Helmets display team right up until they were disbanded in 2017, decades after the bikes were originally manufactured. The team felt that nothing produced in the modern era gave the same combination of low-speed balance, throttle response, agility and general robustness; quite a compliment.

A limited run of grass-track racers for use in promotional races was built for Bulmers cider in late 1977, based very closely on standard T140s but with tuned engines and revised suspension geometry. In 1981, a TR7 Trail model even won the 750 class of the Rallye des Pyrenees. The Trail pre-dated today’s fashion for adventure bikes and was created from the TR7 base model with little more than a 21” front rim, high-level silencer, braced handlebars and plastic mudguards; it was nicknamed the ‘yellow peril’ at the factory.

On the race track, the 1960s glory days of the 650 Bonneville were echoed by the occasional success of the 750 twins. The 1978 Avon/Bike UK production championship was won by a T140, beating everything from Japan and Italy. Over in the USA, in 1982 a T140 TSS model, Triumph’s performance flagship with an 8-valve cylinder head, won its class at Daytona in the Battle of the Twins race, clocking 155mph in the process.

Away from factory efforts, an army of amateur enthusiasts worldwide has tweaked and customised the Triumph 750s to produce their own vision of the ideal machine. It seems unlikely that we’ll ever again see such a versatile motorcycle.

I owned a 1970 Bonneville, bought when almost new. It was quick and handled even better than my Featherbed Nortons but suffered from vibration. I used to ride hard in my youth and over a 180 miles run to Devon one Autumn morn it managed to break the filaments in 4 bulbs, as I discovered when I went to use the lights that night. On a run up the Meriden Mile near the Triumph factory when I took the rev-counter to the near the re-line the trip meter on the speedometer began to rotate like a fruit machine! A beautiful looking bike though that sounded wonderful, and if the engine were to be rebuilt and carefully balanced I'm sure it would be a fair bit smoother.

pierre, 27/05/2020

Ah The Bonneville, I remember as a 14 year old in 1975 being given a spin on the back of one of these. The bike belonged to a workmate of my dads who had just brought the bike brand new and took me for a spin on the back, down private company owned roads. He owned a UK / European spec model with the standard tank and flatter bars (I personally preferred the US export model with the peanut tank and higher handle bars). The torque was very good when pulling away, and I thought I was going to fall off the back ! ? I do like these bikes, and the comments by the White helmets sum up the abilities of these highly regarded machines. Anyone else of a ‘certain age’ enjoyed these machines ? And stories to tell ?

Adibouy, 20/05/2020